Saturday, March 31, 2012

A BRIEF Update on the Drunken Dragons Quilt

Channel Quilting with Walking Foot, Monofilament Nylon Thread
Now that I've finished quilting "in the ditch," I'm adding additional straight lines of quilting vertically through out the Drunken Dragons quilt, using the width of my walking foot as a spacing guide.  I'm quilting two straight lines to the left of each seam and two straight lines to the right, removing safety pins as I come to them.  As you can see, now that I'm not in the ditch anymore the quilting isn't TOTALLY invisible, so now it feels more worthwhile -- but it's still boring.  I'll be glad when I have all of the straight vertical lines in the quilt so I can turn it and start on the horizontal lines.  With the quilt all rolled up and folded, you can't really see the progress you're making.    By the way, I'm quilting all of the straight lines first because the fancy designs and curved quilting lines will tend to pull in and distort the quilt, and it would be next to impossible to quilt straight lines afterwards. 

And -- can you believe it? -- that's ALL I have to say about that right now.  They say that brevity is the soul of wit, and I'm trying SO hard to get my wits about me, for a change...

Have a great day!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Muffins du Jour: KAF Glazed Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins, Baked Entirely by Anders

Anders Samples his Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins
Today is the first day of our Spring Break!  Woohoo!!  Bernie took Lars and Otto to the Kings Mountain State Park in Blacksburg, SC, where they hiked up the mountain and investigated the Revolutionary War memorial.  Meanwhile, Anders and I did some violin practice, took Lulu for a neighborhood walk, and baked muffins together.  My Anders was not at all fond of the somewhat tart Blueberry Rhubarb Muffins I made last week, so we decided to try a new recipe instead.  I supervised, but Anders did all the work of measuring, preheating the oven, and following the recipe all by himself.  I no longer have to worry that he will grow up to be a helpless man and starve to death, because he knows how to follow a recipe and bake muffins now.  Whew -- that's a load off a momma's mind!

We made the King Arthur Flour Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins with chocolate chips instead of pecans, and substituted Fiori di Sicilia (a floral citrus/vanilla flavoring) for orange oil because that's what was in the pantry, and an online reviewer mentioned having made that substitution successfully.  Pumpkin, chocolate, and citrus?  Hmmm...  It's a little unusual, and not my personal favorite -- but the little blond baker was very pleased with the fruits of his labor.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Another Boring Post About the Drunken Dragons Quilt and Invisible Monofilament Nylon Thread

Are you sick of this Drunken Dragons quilt yet?  I know my father-in-law is.  Dad #2, feel free to stop reading right now, because I'm going to talk about invisible thread again.  This is for my own benefit, so I can remember what worked and what didn't work the next time around.  Anyone who never plans to attempt machine quilting, or who already knows how to do this well, will be dreadfully bored by this post.  Read on at your own peril!

As you can see, quilting is in progress (SLOW progress) with the walking foot.  First I was just going to stitch in the ditch (through the seamlines) vertically and horizontally, but then I read in Diane Gaudynski's book that she recommends stitching all the straight vertical lines first, then all the straight horizontal lines second.  Harriet Hargrave's book tells you to stitch the center vertical first, then the center horizontal, and then go back to quilt the rest of the vertical horizontal lines, but Diane's snow plow analogy won me over -- I've had the experience in the past of "snow plowing" fabric across the quilt until it hits the "brick wall" of the center seam.  So my quilting plan is:

  1. Ditch quilting with walking foot on all vertical seam lines (done)
  2. Quilt additional straight lines with walking foot, using width of the walking foot as a spacing guide (currently in progress)
  3. Ditch quilting and additional straight lines with walking foot on all horizontal seam lines
  4. Free motion quilting in the ditch with BSR function on all circular seam lines
  5. Fancy quilting with embroidery module and hoop, center of each circle
  6. Free motion echo quilting with BSR function around fancy motifs

Quilting "In the Ditch"
What's "ditch quilting?"  All of my seams are pressed to one side, which elevates the fabric on the side where the seam allowances stack and creates a lower "ditch" on the side without seam allowances under it.  When you're stitching "in the ditch," you're trying to stitch right along the seam on the lower side, with your needle rubbing against the raised side, but all the stiches laying on the lower side. 

All these straight lines with the walking foot are mind-numbingly boring, and it feels like I'm not accomplishing anything because of the invisible thread.  The invisibilty factor is nice when I mess up and the stitching line veers crooked, like this:

See how the quilting stitches that were supposed to stay on the black fabric, accidentally went up onto the red fabric briefly?  That would be obvious and unattractive in a regular thread, but with invisible thread you can barely see the boo-boo up close.  From a distance you can't tell there's any stitching there at all:

But even though I KNOW the quilting is important for holding the whole thing together, the invisible thread is bumming me out because, no matter how many lines of stitching I complete, the quilt looks just like it did when I started.  It's so much more fun to quilt with thread you can see!  I'm hoping that I'll get some shrinkage and puckering when I wash this quilt the first time.  In fact, I ran out of bobbin thread and had no idea -- just kept sewing nothing for ages.  I don't think I'll use this thread again, once this project is complete.

Back side of quilt: First line of quilting crosses the Scrabble label, color is a good match!
The 60 weight cotton thread I'm using in the bobbin is looking pretty good on the back of the quilt, though.  I chose the color so that it would "disappear" over the Scrabble label I appliqued to the backing, and I was nervous about how the off white color would look on the blue backing fabric, but I like how it's turning out.  Again, any sane quilter would have TESTED THIS OUT ahead of time on scraps of the backing fabric, but I am impatient, so I live and sew dangerously.

A few quick notes:

When all else fails, read the instruction manual!  The pre-programmed quilting straight stitch on my machine is #1324, and it doesn't work the way I thought it did.  With this stitch selected, you start sewing and the machine automatically takes five tiny locking stitches and then increases to 2.5 or whatever you have it set for.  Then, about 1/2" from the end of the seam, you're supposed to hit the little purple Quick Reverse button (looks like a U-turn sign) that's just above the needle on the machine, to signal that it's time to go back to the tiny locking stitches again.  Then I press the little auto thread cutter button and the machine clips the top and bobbin threads for me (I still have to trim them again later, but at least the thread tails are short enough not to get caught in subsequent quilting).

One more thing -- my locking hemostat tweezers are an absolute godsend for grabbing hold of the pesky monofilament nylon thread at the beginning of each seam, and for pulling up the bobbin thread so it doesn't tangle up on the backside of the quilt.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's Rhubarb Season! Bring on Some Blueberry Rhubarb Muffins!

Blueberry Rhubarb Muffins, recipe from Pat Sinclair's Scandinavian Classic Baking
I've noticed fresh rhubarb in the produce section of the supermarket lately, and couldn't resist trying out a new recipe from Pat Sinclair's Scandinavian Classic Baking.  The verdict?  Well, first I tasted one, to make sure they were edible.  Then I ate three more of them, and I'm going to have to put the rest of them someplace where I can't reach them if anyone else is to have a chance to try them! 

Rhubarb and blueberries are both high in Vitamin C, dietary fiber and calcium, and studies have shown that both rhubarb and blueberries help to prevent the development and growth of cancer.  Blueberries have the additional benefits of reducing memory loss, reducing urinary tract infections, and lowering cholesterol.  I didn't know any of this before baking the muffins -- I looked up the health benefits afterwards, to justify and rationalize my muffin gluttony.  It seems you can never be too rich, too thin, or eat too many blueberry rhubarb muffins...  ;-)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

IT'S A MIRACLE! After Nixing the Nitrogen, My Lilac Tree is FINALLY Blooming!!!

Four-Year-Old Lilac Blooming for the Very First Time!
In one of my very first blog posts here, I lamented the complete lack of blooms on my lackluster lilac tree.  Four years ago, soon after moving into this house, I ordered two lilacs of the exact same Syringa "Lavendar Lady" variety from Wayside Gardens, a variety that was supposed to be especially well adapted to Southern gardens because it does not require a cold winter in order to bloom.    I gave one of the two lilacs to my mother, who also lives in Charlotte, and Bernie planted the other one in our back yard.

Here is the photo of Syringa "Lavendar Lady" that Wayside Gardens uses on their web site and in their catalog:
Syringa "Lavendar Lady," photo courtesy of Wayside Gardens

Gorgeous, right?  What's not to love?  I can almost smell the lilacs through the computer monitor.  So, we planted the twig with roots that came in the mail, watched it leaf out and grow throughout the summer, and looked forward eagerly to lilacs in the Spring.  But when Spring came, it brought no lilac blooms to my garden, only pale green leaves and longer branches.  Okay, so maybe it doesn't bloom until the second year, once it's more established and mature, right?  Except that my MOTHER'S lilac was already blooming, looking like this:
Mom's Syringa "Lavendar Lady," Spring 2011
It was a far cry from the stunner in the Wayside Gardens photo, but hey -- it had blooms!  Same plant, same source, same climate zone -- what was different?  Well, most obviously, my mother's lilac was getting a lot more sun than ours was, at the back side of the house where it was shaded until afternoon.  I read that lilacs need full sun, and I began begging my husband to relocate the plant so that we, too, could enjoy blooms some day. 

By the way, if you do not live in the Carolinas, where rock-hard orange clay masquerades as "soil," I forgive you for wondering why I didn't dig the plant up and move it myself.  We have actually bent shovels in the orange clay, and I have nowhere near the upper body strength required to dig up a shrubbery here.  Imagine trying to break up a concrete patio with a garden shovel instead of a jack hammer, and you get the idea.  Welcome to gardening in the South!

Just because someone is physically strong enough to dig up a lilac and relocate it in a sunnier spot, does not mean that he necessarily has the will to do so.  Bernie used all his creative cunning to concoct reasons to leave the pitiful lilac where it was.  The first year, he said "If it doesn't bloom next year, I'll move it for you then."  The next year, when it still didn't bloom (and my mother's bloomed again), he came up with a bizarre explanation of how my mother's lilac was actually on the verge of death, and was marshalling the last of its meager energy resources to produce its blooms in a desperate attempt to pass on its genes before shriveling up dead.  My mother, who has been rather smug about her blooming lilac these last few years, was not pleased to hear Bernie's theory.  My lilac was much taller than hers, and covered in leaves, but still no blooms.  Of course, my husband's willingness to dig up the lilac and move it decreased severely as the lilac grew bigger and bigger.

Finally, last year, I read here that fertilizers containing too much nitrogen (like what my Lover dumps all over the lawn, the azaleas, and all over the acid-loving hollies -- can't have too much of a good thing!) can cause lilacs to grow lush green foliage, but no blooms!  Eureka!  Sure enough, Bernie had been plying my lilac with Holly Tone fertilizer in hopes that he could force-feed it into blooming (and avoid digging it up).  He discontinued the fertilizer last summer.

My 4-yr. old Syringa "Lavendar Lady," just like the Wayside Gardens Picture!
I forgot all about our little fertilizer experiment until I looked out the kitchen window the other day and saw two little clusters of flower buds on my lilac.  My specimen is still far from healthy, and Lulu's helpful attempts to prune the lower branches are probably not doing much good, either.  I still believe that the lilac would do better in a sunnier location, but hey -- flowers are appearing where I had given up hope of ever seeing them.  Would I have ordered this tree if I had known ahead of time what it was going to look like in my yard?  Well...

I would still love to dig this up.  It would be so much better if it was at the front corner of the front yard, near the street light and the ugly cable box.  It would have more sun there, Lulu the Terrible wouldn't be snacking on its branches, and then we could enjoy the fragrant blooms every time we walked down the sidewalk.  It would just need to be far enough back from the street that it didn't get peed on by all the neighborhood dogs (canine pee being high in nitrogen).

What do you think my chances are of getting Bernie to dig up this tree, now that it's 10' tall and has sported some meager blooms?  Should I hire a landscaper to move it when he's out of town?  Sometimes, in gardening and in marriage, it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Taking the Terror Out of Invisible Nylon Monofilament Thread: Best Practices Borrowed from the Experts

Set up and Ready for Machine Quilting
Welcome to my sewing studio, bloggy friends!  No, I haven't started quilting yet, but I did spend some time in the studio yesterday, clearing the mountains of fabric, rulers, sewing magazines, tools, and mending off this folding table so I could move it in front of my sewing cabinet.  I would have moved the table even closer to my chair, except the back end of the table is already hitting my mammoth cutting table and that's way too heavy for me to move.  I already had another folding table set up behind my red sewing machine cabinet (which is a Bernie-Built exclusive, in case you're wondering), so now the weight of the quilt will be supported on all sides while I'm quilting.  It's really important that the quilt isn't hanging onto the floor, so you don't have to fight the force of gravity while you're trying to quilt.  My sewing machine is lowered so it's flush with the top of the cabinet, with a clear acrylic piece filling the gap between the machine and the table top.  I ordered the acrylic insert from one of the major sewing machine cabinet manufacturers, made to fit my machine make and model, and then I had Bernie cut the hole in the cabinet top to fit the acrylic insert.

Nylon Monofilament Thread on Thread Stand
I wanted to share some tips for working with nylon monofilament "invisible" thread, since so many people seem to struggle with it.  Because I prefer to learn from the mistakes of others whenever possible, I did a little research into the best practices others have come up with for working with this thread.  Most of what I'm about to tell you came out of either Harriet Hargrave's Heirloom Machine Quilting book or out of Diane Gaudynski's Guide to Machine Quilting.  I strongly recommend both books.

I'm using a high quality invisible thread from SewArt International, which is always the first step towards success.  Cheap thread is never worth the grief it causes, and neither is old, brittle thread.  Second, I've put the invisible nylon thread on a silly thread stand contraption that hooks onto the back of my sewing machine, the Multiple Spool Holder accessory.  The thread stand is silly only because it holds a ridiculous number of thread spools, and the sewing machine only has one needle -- at most, you might use three spools at once with a triple wing needle.  It's supposed to facilitate machine embroidery work, and I bought it thinking that I would line up different color threads in order of stitching for embroidery designs, but in reality, I rarely ever embroider designs with enough color changes to warrant the stand.  So the Multiple Spool Holder is overkill for quilting, but I'm using it so the nylon monofilament thread can sit vertically on the stand and, although it comes off the spool kind of curled and kinky, the thread has plenty of opportunity to relax and learn some manners as it travel up to the loop at the top of the thread stand, then back down to the machine and its tension disks, preventing the snarling and kinking problems that can sometimes happen with this thread. 

Photo Courtesy Clotilde
If you don't have a funky thread stand like mine, you can get a simple cast iron cone thread stand online here from Clotilde for less than $10, and just set it on the table next to your sewing machine; it will work just as well.

Invisible Nylon Thread in the Guide Attached to my Sewing Machine
Next, one of my books recommended taping a little safety pin to the edge of the sewing machine as an additional thread guide for monofilament nylon thread.  Lo and behold, my Bernina Artista 200E/730E sewing machine already has a little metal guide loop already attached in exactly the right spot!  Never noticed that before!  I love it when my sewbaby is one step ahead of me!  So my invisible thread is going straight up off the spool to the top of my thread stand, down to the little metal loop guide on the right side of my sewing machine, just above the hand wheel, and from there it follows the regular thread path.  My horizontal spool pin is holding the Mettler 60 weight 2-ply cotton embroidery thread that I'm using in my bobbin.  Remember, if your machine doesn't have this extra thread guide, just tape a small safety pin in the same spot on your machine and use that as your thread guide. 

As I'm editing photos for this post, trying to adjust the brightness so you can actually SEE the invisible thread, I feel like one of the bogus tailors in The Emperor's New Clothes.  It's the most beautiful thread in the world, but alas, fools cannot see it...  ;-)  Don't feel too bad -- I can't see it, either.

Okay, now for the tension samples!  Did you think you could thread your machine up with magical invisible nylon thread and sew beautiful stitches without having to make any tension adjustments?  Think again, sister!  Invisible nylon thread stretches as it goes through the tension disks of your machine, so you are going to need looser needle tension than the standard setting, which is calibrated for sewing with regular weight cotton or polyester construction thread in both the needle and the bobbin.  I can't tell you exactly what setting you should use, because the tension numbers are completely arbitrary and vary widely by machine, even within the same brand.  The only universal tension truths are that higher numbers equal tighter tension, and nylon thread is going to need looser tension than whatever your standard setting is.

Monofilament Tension Sample, Top Row is Normal Tension, Gradually Reduced to Bottom Row at 1.25
When I used the invisible nylon thread a few weeks ago to blind applique the Scrabble quilt label to the backing fabric, I just dropped my needle tension down to 3.0 and that seemed fine.  So I thought 3 was my magic monofilament number, until I started stitching parallel test rows down a sandwich of backing fabric and batting scraps.  The bobbin thread on the back of this sample is very easy to see and looks great at every setting.  It's really tough to tell what you're looking at on the invisible nylon side, though.  I couldn't get this to photograph well, either, but I finally determined that I needed to reduce my needle tension all the way down to 1.25 with this thread.  With higher/tighter tension, the nylon monofilament was laying in a flat line across the top of the fabric, pulling the bobbin thread all the way to the top to lock and form the stitch, instead of meeting the bobbin thread halfway in the middle.  When my needle tension is too tight, the invisible nylon looks really shiny because it's a straight, unbroken line of thread reflecting the light.  When I reduced the tension sufficiently, the shiny effect was greatly reduced because the nylon thread was bending between each stitch and disappearing into the quilt sandwich instead of laying tautly across the top of the fabric.  Does that make sense?  If your monofilament thread looks too "shiny," which is a common complaint from those who don't want to use it, I suggest you lower your needle tension until you can tame the shine.  You can keep reducing needle tension as long as the bobbin thread still looks good on the back.  If you start to have a "line" of bobbin thread on the back instead of individual stitches, you'll know you've gone too far.

Another point about the bobbin thread: Looking back at my sample stitches again, I can see a tiny dot of bobbin thread between each stitch on the top of my quilt sandwich.  This effect was more pronounced when my needle tension was too tight and pulling the bobbin up to the top, but it doesn't completely go away even once my tension is balanced.  I'm using a #60 sharp needle to make the smallest hole possible, and that should help, but it's a good reason to select a bobbin thread color that will blend with fabrics in your quilt top instead of a thread color that only looks good with the backing.

I also happily discovered that my sewing machine has a built in quilting straight stitch programmed with 5 tiny little stitches at the beginning and end to lock off stitches.  I don't think I've used that in the past, I've just manually turned the stitch length adjuster at the beginning and end of each line of stitching.  I'm not sure if I'll use the built in stitch or not -- it's nice at the beginning of the row, because you just tap the "pattern begin" button on the touch screen and start sewing, and the machine automatically increases to the correct stitch length after locking in the stitches without having to take your hands off the fabric.  The annoying part is at the end, when my foot is on the pedal and I reach up to hit the "pattern end" button to tell the machine to go back to the tiny stitches to end the row.  If I don't tap the button just right with my fingertip, the machine keeps sewing the longer stitch length while I tap it again and again, waiting for the chime that means "yes, Master" in Sewbaby Speak.  We'll see how that goes.

So much for the "quick blog post" I planned to write this morning!  Hopefully next time I post, I will have made some progress with the actual quilting. 

UPDATED February 18th, 2014: I did some quilting with monofilament nylon on my Bernina 750 QE for the first time a couple of days ago.  She handled it beautifully, with cotton thread in the bobbin and top tension reduced to 2.0.  I did place the monofilament nylon on my thread stand behind the machine and did everything else the same way I did on my previous Artista 200/730 E.

PSST!!  I'd Love to Quilt for YOU!

By the way, if you or any of your quilty friends has a quilt top or two that needs quilting, I'd be delighted to quilt for you!  My turnaround for edge-to-edge quilting is currently running about 2 weeks, and you can click here to find out how to book your quilt with me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Beast Has Been Basted! Onwards to the Quilting!

A Sea of Safety Pins
There are about 730 size #1 safety pins more or less evenly spaced throughout my 70" x 105" Drunken Dragons quilt now.  I tried to be careful to keep the layers perfectly smooth, straight, and flat while I was pinning, ever fearful of ending up with those pleats and puckers on the backing side after machine quilting.  I even flipped Anders' Froggy Quilt of Many Colors over to try to get pictures of the pleats and puckers and knots that I'm trying to avoid this time, and you know what?  I couldn't even FIND them!  I know they're there, but evidently the "oopses" weren't as bad as they seemed at the time.  That's encouraging, right? 
Kwik Klip tool and Size #1 Curved Safety Pins
A quick word about pin basting: as far as I'm concerned, the Kwik Klip tool is absolutely mandatory for this task.  It costs about $7, and it's a wood handled tool that looks sort of like a blunt awl with grooves around the metal end.  It's used to lift the pointed end of the safety pin away from the fabric and close the pin without scratching and poking your fingers.  Even if you managed not to stab yourself closing pins without the tool, you would still have extremely sore fingertips after so many hundreds of pins.  This tool is worth its weight in gold, and you can get one here if you can't find one at your local quilt shop.  I use curved, nickel-plated, rust-proof size #1 safety pins to baste my quilts, and I try to evenly space them about 3" apart throughout the quilt.  I was careful not to put pins too close to the seam lines between blocks, because I'll be quilting "in the ditch" right along those seams lines with my walking foot to stabilize the quilt before I do any other quilting.

I'm also planning to attempt quilting in the ditch along the curved circle seam on each block, but that's going to have to be done free motion, with the feed dogs down, so I don't have to wrestle with turning the quilt 360 degrees for every circle. 
Variegated Machine Quilting Threads I will NOT be Using, YLI & King Tut
Which brings me to the Thread Question.  This is going to be my first quilt using nylon monofilament "invisible" thread in the needle.  I briefly considered some of these lovely variegated machine quilting threads that I had in my stash, but then I noticed that they were all 40 weight threads and I remembered all the reasons I had opted to go with invisible thread this time:  Heavy decorative threads might look great with my fabrics, but they will draw attention to every quilting hiccup or oops, and I'm very much a beginner at free motion quilting, so there are bound to be plenty of them.  Also, as I discovered on past projects, the fancy quilting designs that are digitized to stitch automatically with my machine's embroidery module tend to look bulky where the design backtracks to get from one place to another, and you can get little bumpy knots on the back of the quilt at points or places where the design stitches over itself too much.  I usually prefer natural fibers, and had an initial aversion to invisible "plastic" thread -- but Harriet Hargrove and Diane Gaudynski, arguably the most accomplished machine quilting experts around, both have used the invisible nylon monofilament thread in their award-winning quilts, and they recommend it for beginners.  If it's good enough for Harriet and Diane, it's good enough for me!

In my research on this thread, I found that most quilters use invisible nylon thread in the needle only, and recommend a 60 weight cotton embroidery thread in the bobbin.  I have heard wonderful things about Aurifil Mako 50 weight cotton thread for both piecing and quilting, which is supposed to be combine the benefits of 50 and 60 weight threads, but none of the shops local to me carry Aurifil and I wasn't about to order it online since I want a color that will virtually disappear on the Scrabble label fabric (I appliqued the label to the quilt backing prior to layering and basting so it will be quilted in and never come off, but I don't want to see contrasting quilting thread running all over the scrabble tiles).

Boring Threads I WILL Be Using: SewArt, YLI, Bottom Line & Mettler
I went to my local Bernina dealership, and I bought both a 60 weight Mettler cotton embroidery thread and a 60 weight polyester thread, The Bottom Line, that Superior Threads developed for machine quilter Libby Lehman.  I really just wanted the 60 weight cotton, because that's exactly what Diane Gaudynski's book says to use in the bobbin with invisible thread in the needle, but the two salesladies at the dealership are also quilters and they were pushy and insistent about the polyester thread.  They were trying to be helpful, but they made me feel like I was disrespecting my quilting elders if I didn't opt to do it their way, and the same ladies gave me attitude when I came in to buy more #1 safety pins after I ran out of them earlier this week.  You know, the raised eyebrows and the barely audible sniff of disapproval as they checked me out.  Apparently THEY use the larger #2 pins and they work just fine for them.  Maybe they use a thicker, loftier polyester batting instead of the thin batts I use, who knows?  The thing is, there is no one "right" way to do any of this.  Some quilters prewash fabric, some use it straight off the bolt.  Some starch, some don't.  There are raging debates about every marking product out there, and each quilter needs to try different things to find out what works best for him or her (yes -- there ARE he-quilters out there, too!).  The way I navigate the minefield of conflicting options is to seek out those quilters whose work I most admire, and find out what products and techniques they are using.  I didn't mind buying both threads this time, because it's possible that my sewing machine will prefer one over another, and what doesn't get used on this quilt can go into my stash for a future project.  But I have had similar experiences in several other shops, where the mostly older salesladies who have been sewing for decades were not able to set aside their own values and preferences in favor of the customer's needs and the profitibility of their employer.  When I was shopping for fabric for my very first quilt, the quilt shop ladies tried to talk me out of buying the more expensive (and exciting!) batiks that I was drawn to -- they felt that I should be shopping in the clearance fabric section until I was more experienced, and told me so!  My point in mentioning all of this is that there is a huge opportunity for quilt shops and machine dealerships to improve their profitibility with some basic sales training for their staff.  If I had the option of another shop nearby, I wouldn't go back to this one at all.  Okay -- off my soap box!

Another note about sewing with the invisible thread: On the advice of my experts, I did lower my needle tension when I used this thread for my invisible machine applique.  I put a lightweight cotton embroidery thread in the bobbin, matched to my background fabric, lowered the top tension by one, and used the built-in invisible applique stitch on my machine, with some minor length and width adjustments.  I also put the invisible thread on the thread stand attachment that I bought for embroidery threads, instead of using the horizontal spool holder on the machine.  Using a free-standing cone thread stand would be another option, but this thread benefits from a little extra breathing room as it comes off the spool and travels to the tension disks to prevent it from kinking up and misbehaving.

My espresso machine is fixed and running smoothly again, thanks to my "handy" husband, so all is well again in my caffeinated world.  Today I've got some errands to run and phone calls to make, and Anders has his first Suzuki violin lesson this afternoon.  I'm hoping to sneak in 30 minutes of sewing time either today or sometime tomorrow.  I'll post more pictures once the quilting adventure has begun.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Espresso Machine in Stable Condition Following Amateur Surgery, Awaiting Transplant

Espresso Machine, Just Out of Warranty, On the Operating Table
Out of nowhere, my Expobar Office Lever Plus espresso machine suffered a massive heart attack on Saturday evening.  It was plugged in and turned on, as it always is, heated up and ready to service coffee making whims at a moment's notice, when all of a sudden, the fuse blew.  We flipped the breaker, and it instantly blew again.  "Something has a short," Bernie declared, and he set about sleuthing to uncover the culprit.  Eventually he determined that my darling espresso machine was to blame, since everything was fine if he reset the fuse with my machine turned off, but the fuse blew immediately when he switched the espresso machine back on. 

At first, I begged him not to touch it.  Visions of, well, what you see pictured above, tormented my imagination, and the machine's manual warned us in big, bold type: THIS MACHINE CONTAINS NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS.  I had a vague fear that Bernie would come up with some kind of MacGyver solution involving duct tape and a plyers hanging out of the side of the machine.  However, preliminary research uncovered the stark and ugly facts: This espresso machine was manufactured in Australia, and sold to me by an internet company out of Rochester, NY.  It weighs as much as Anders.  It is no longer under warranty, I did not save the original shipping carton, and even if I had, it would cost a fortune just in shipping to send my espresso machine to wherever the nearest authorized service center might be located, and it would take a small eternity to get it back again.  Reluctantly, worn down by caffeine deprivation and despair, I conceded and authorized Bernie to commence amateur exploratory surgery yesterday afternoon. 

My husband ripped off the sides of the machine, poked around in its mechanical guts, and determined that the heating element had gone bad.  He read through Internet espresso fanatic forums frequented by hard core coffee afficionados, and informed me that my machine's problem was "pretty common."  He briefly considered scouting around for something "that might work" from Lowe's or Home Depot, but when the smoke started pouring out of my ears and my eyeballs burned fiery red he reconsidered and promised to find actual espresso machine parts.

So here we are, Monday morning, and Bernie just got off the phone with the tech support department at Whole Latte Love, where I purchased my machine.  The good news is that it is possible to order a $75 replacement part to make my machine whole again.  The bad news is that the part is backordered until the end of the month.  Seriously?!  No lattes until April?  I'll be driving to Starbucks in my nightgown and bathrobe every morning at the break of dawn, before waking up the kids.  Don't you dare judge me, either -- that's why they have a drive-through!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Basting?

The First Pins are In!
After procrastinating and worrying about it all week long, I finally got the Drunken Dragons quilt layered yesterday and began pin basting.  There are only 9 pins in the quilt so far, and about 500 to go, but at least it's a start!

I had difficulties with the ironing and starching of the quilt top and backing, which I was doing on a regular ironing board with Niagara spray starch and lots of steam.  I am a child of the Permanent Press generation, and I have no experience with starch.  No, scratch that -- I once attempted to launder and starch my husband's dress shirts, and he asked me never to do so again because people would make fun of him if he went to work looking like that.  So I ended up creating all kinds of distortion and stretching with my bungled pressing and starching process, and my mom came to the rescue and helped me get everything nice and flat again afterwards.  I think the problem was that the weight of the quilt top was pulling and stretching around the tapered end of the ironing board, because I had a series of "bubbles" at regular intervals going down the center of the quilt top and backing, each bubble uniformly the size and shape of the ironing board tip.  Maybe I shouldn't have used steam?  Maybe I was using too much starch at once, getting everything too wet before pressing?  Ideally, I think that job would have gone better on a larger rectangular surface, like if I wrapped the top of my cutting table with heat proof padding like a drapery workroom table.  Next time!

Backing Centered and Clamped, Wrong Side Up
So, once I had the quilt top and backing all flat and square again, the next step was to layer the backing, batting, and quilt top, and secure the layers together with safety pins in preparation for machine quilting.  I was really dreading this step from past experience and less-than-perfect results, so I did some research into how other quilters approach layering and basting for their quilts.  Some people will tape the backing down on a clean, smooth floor and crawl around on their hands and knees to do the basting, but with a quilt as big as mine I'd have to crawl ON the quilt to get to the middle, which would definitely cause shifting, not to mention back and knee pain.  Others recommend doing it on a raised table, in sections, which is what I've done before, and what I am doing this time.  The first thing you do is center your backing wrong side up on your table, smoooth it flat, and clamp it in place with binder clips from an office supply store.  Last time I did this, I was following directions that instructed me to "stretch" the backing until it was "taut" as I clamped it down, and I stretched it so tightly that, when the clamps were released, the backing pulled back immediately, creating reverse distortion.  That's probably a contributing factor to the little pleats and tucks I see here and there on the back of Anders' Froggy Quilt of Many Colors.  So, this time, I followed the advice of Diane Gaudynski and Harriet Hargrave and used starch for the first time on the quilt top and backing with the final pressing, and instead of stretching the backing within an inch of its life, I just smoothed it out enough that I didn't get ripples when I ran my hand over the fabric.  Hopefully I'll get better results this time.

A word about my table: My cutting table is about 30" tall, with a 72" x 54" surface.  Bigger is not better, in this case.  I want my husband to rebuild it so it's only 36" wide, because I'm having to reach too much to get at the center of the table.  It is also taking up too much real estate in my studio, which I'm planning to completely reconfigure this summer for a more workable floorplan that can accommodate a desk with a computer near my sewing machine.  I find I'm using the computer more and more in my sewing, not just with the embroidery software, but to access online manuals, sewing blogs, tutorials, etc.  I also like to set one of the boys up in my room sometimes when they have a school project to work on that requires a lot of concentration, and a little computer desk would be perfect for that as well.

Batting Smoothed in Place Over Backing Fabric
Back to the project at hand!  Once the backing was centered and secured with clamps, I smoothed out my batting on top.  I ordered 3 1/4 yards of 96" wide Hobbs Tuscany Collection Silk Batting, so the length is almost the same as I cut my backing fabric but the batting is about 20" wider.  For layering purposes, it would have been easier to fold the batting in half twice and center it on the table, like I did the backing, but then I'd be cutting 10" strips off each side of the quilt.  This batting isn't cheap, so I lined up one edge with the edge of the backing fabric and all the excess batting is hanging off the back of the table, to be trimmed off once basting is completed.  That way I'll have a 20" wide strip of leftover batting that can be used for table runners, placemats, or other small projects.  I suppose I could have cut the excess 20" off first and then centered the batting over the backing fabric, but I heard a small voice of irrational fear whispering, "what if you accidentally cut off too much?" 

By the way, why am I using silk batting?  I have wanted to try silk batting ever since I took a hand quilting class with Dierdra McElroy of Roxanne International several years ago.  She passed around a hand quilted sample with silk batting, and it was just the snuggliest, softest, lightest thing you could imagine.  Wendy Sheppard raves about how well this particular silk batting does for machine quilting, remaining soft and drapable no matter how densely she quilts it, so I decided to give it a try.  The manufacturer says to expect approximately 5% shrinkage with this batting.  It's actually a 90/10 silk/poly blend that can be quilted up to 3 1/2" apart, and the washing instructions are "hand wash in tepid water and dry flat."  Hmm...  I don't do hand washing, but my fancy washing machine has a hand wash cycle that should do the trick.  The "dry flat" part may be more of a challenge, but maybe I can get away with machine drying it on low heat, delicate cycle?  Maybe I can at least partially machine dry, and then find someplace in the house where I can lay it out flat over towels, where the dogs can't get at it?  We'll see. 

No more tangents!  Back to my project!

All Three Layers, Ready for Basting
Finally, I centered my quilt top over the backing fabric and batting.  The seamlines on the quilt top made it easy to find the centers of each side and get everything nice and straight.  As you can see, the backing and batting are quite a bit bigger than the quilt top.  Most instructions tell you to just make sure your batting and backing are 2-3" bigger than your quilt top on all sides.  Again, the fear of "I cut it twice and it's still too short" prevented me from cutting off the excess backing and batting fabric prior to layering and basting.  I smoothed the quilt top out over the batting as best as I could, and started putting curved safety pins through all three layers, starting at the center of the quilt and working my way out towards the edges.   

Curved Safety Pins for Basting and Kwik Klip Tool
I'm using nickel plated, non-rusting, Size #1 curved safety pins, and I use that Kwik Klip tool to close the pins, to reduce sore fingers.  By the time I'm finished basting this quilt, there will be at least 500 safety pins in it, spaced about 2-3" apart. 

Now that I'm going over all of this in my head again, I'm glad I have less than 10 safety pins in the quilt so far, because I want to double check to make sure that the appliqued Scrabble label on the quilt backing is completely underneath the quilt top, so I won't cut part of it off when I trim off the excess backing fabric.  It would be REALLY ANNOYING to spend hours pin basting the entire quilt and then have to take all the pins out, shift the layers, and start over again!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to Hire the Best Interior Designer for Your Project: What to Look For & What to Ask

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Machine Embroidered Quilt Signature: Using V6 Bernina Software with the Artista 200/730 Machine

Machine Embroidered Quilt Label
Today is a busy Saturday for us, but I wanted to get this down quickly while the details are still fresh in my mind.  If you've missed my previous posts about Lars's "Drunken Dragons" drunkard's path quilt, you can catch up here

As you can see, I've machine embroidered the name of the quilt, my name, and the year on the front of my completed quilt top.  I suppose I could have put this information on the back, where I appliqued the Mommy Loves Lars Scrabble label, but I decided to put it on the edge of the quilt top, a few inches away from where the binding will be.  I'm planning to quilt this project with invisible monofilament nylon thread, so the quilting stitches can go right over both labels without detracting from them. 

This is the first time I've used my Bernina Artista Embroidery Software since upgrading from Version 4 to Version 6 a few months ago, and when I first sat down to do this label I ran into annoying technical difficulties.  Here's what happened.

Printed Template of my Quilt Signature Design
First, I created this simple embroidered text design in my software program on my PC.  The template printout shown above is useful in positioning the embroidery design on the quilt.

USB Stick Plugged into Artista 200/730 Machine
Next, I saved the embroidery design to a Sandisk USB stick that I have successfully used many times (before upgrading my embroidery software) to transfer design files between my PC and my sewing machine.  (Note: My embroidery software lives on my PC, in my first floor office, and my sewing machine lives in my second floor sewing studio, by the way -- if I had a PC or laptop sitting right next to my sewing machine, I could connect the two with a cable and send the designs directly from the computer to the sewing machine). 

New Design, #17, Won't Preview on Sewing Machine
However, when I scrolled through my USB stick designs on my sewing machine screen, I could see all of my older designs, but the new design I'd just created was just a blank square without a preview.

When I selected Design #17, I got this error:

-- Which is ridiculous, because the machine hasn't opened any designs yet, and the one I'm trying to open is an itty bitty design with less than 4500 stitches.  My sewing machine can handle much larger, extremely complex designs -- it doesn't make sense that my little text design would max out the machine's memory.  I tried shutting down and restarting the machine, but I got the same error every time I attempted to open my new design.  When I touched the red circle with an X, I got the following additional information about the error:

Hmmm...  "Design not loadable?"  My Version 6 embroidery software is the latest and greatest version available from Bernina, but my sewing machine (an Artista 200E that was upgraded to the equivalent of the newer 730E) is about 10 years old now.  I know, I know -- our mothers and grandmothers sewed on the same machines for 30 years or longer, but today's computerized machines are more like our laptop computers, cell phones and televisions.  I began to suspect a compatibility issue between the sewing machine and the new design software.

I went back downstairs to my PC and saved the design again, this time paying attention to the file format that the software was defaulting to. 

v6 Software defaults to save every design in the newest .ART60 format

Aha!  Instead of saving my design as an .ART file, it was saving as an .ART60 file, the newest format.  I'm sure the newest machines can read this format, but my older sewbaby was choking on it! 

Selecting .ART type for Bernina A730/A200 designs

Sure enough, there's an option to save designs as BERNINA A730/A200 designs (*.ART).  Once I saved the file in the correct format for my machine, it popped up on the sewing machine screen with no problems and it was smooth sailing after that.

New Design Previewed in square #15; #16 is a file in the wrong format for my machine

Here we go!  Now that I finally had my design loaded on my sewing machine, I threaded the machine with Isacord 1301 and black embroidery bobbin thread.  I used an organ embroidery needle, the straight stitch throat plate, and attached my embroidery module to the sewing machine (it's a separate unit that locks in place and plugs into the sewing machine with a cable, allowing the sewing machine's internal computer to move the embroidery hoop in all directions beneath the needle according to the programming in the embroidery design file to create the desired embroidery design). 

Quilt Top Basted to Stabilizer in Oval Hoop
Most of the time, you hoop your actual project fabric between the two rings of your embroidery hoop to hold your fabric taut and secure for stitching, but I was leery of the possibility of getting a hoop "ring" creased into my quilt top that I might not be able to iron out.  My little text design was not incredibly dense, so I decided to hoop a single layer of tearaway embroidery stabilizer, which I then sprayed lightly with 505 Spray and Fix temporary Spray Adhesive.  I carefully positioned the quilt top over the sticky surface of the hooped stabilizer, using the gridded hoop template to ensure my quilt top was straight, and then I used a preprogrammed automatic basting "design" to stitch the quilt top to the stabilizer just inside the hoop.  These automatic basting designs are available for every hoop size and can be downloaded free of charge from the Bernina web site.

On-Screen Editing Tools Used to Precisely Position Embroidery Design
Next, I used the on-screen editing features of my sewing machine to reposition the embroidery design at the edge of the hoop, instead of centered in the middle of the hoop.  I could have done this in my embroidery software before saving the design, but by doing it on the sewing machine screen I can position the text more precisely on my project.  I wanted it near the edge of the quilt top, but far enough away that it wouldn't get covered by the quilt binding. 

Now, I should mention that at this point my husband poked his head in and said, "You are going to test that on another piece of fabric before you do it on the quilt top, aren't you?"  Duh...  Everyone knows you should always test your embroidery design with your planned fabric, stabilizer, thread, and needle combination before you stitch it out on your project in case you need to make any adjustments.  So, that's what I should have done, and that's what you should do.  I scowled at my husband and ignored his advice.  Full speed ahead! 

Ta Da! 
So here's the finished design, after trimming the jump stitches between letters and tearing away the stabilizer from the back of the quilt top, and carefully removing the basting stitches.  The basting stitches left holes in the fabrics, especially the batik fabric on the left, but I was able to easily scratch them out with my fingernail.  My husband is right; I should have tested the design on a scrap first.  There are many different fonts built into the embroidery software and you can also automatically convert any True Type font that you have loaded on your computer to stitches, but some fonts work well in small sizes and others work better larger.  After stitching this out, I realized that the font I chose this time has little jump stitches within the letters that are simply too tiny to snip safely without risking cutting actual embroidery stitches, so it looks a little sloppier than I'd like if you put your nose right up close to it.  I suppose I could use my stitch eraser (like an electric shaver) to cut out all of the embroidery stitches and start over, but I think it's better to leave it the way it is than to risk accidentally cutting a hole in the quilt top and really screwing things up. 

Now that I've got the quilt signature embroidered, I can give the quilt top a final pressing with plenty of starch, and then either mark some background grid lines (if I decide the grid quilting should be diagonal) or else skip marking and move on to layering and basting the backing, batting, and quilt top (if I do the background quilting grid straight instead of diagonal, I can use the piecing seams to guide the quilting so marking won't be necessary).

Children's Signatures Embroidered on Craft Aprons as Teacher Gifts

Idea for a future quilt label: I could scan in my handwritten signature and use my embroidery software to digitize an actual embroidered version that I could stitch out on a project.  I did something like that several years ago using children's signatures.  I had each child sign his or her name in magic marker on a white sheet of paper, scanned the signatures and then embroidered them on readymade craft aprons as end-of-year gifts for Anders' preschool teachers, who had worked on name writing with the class throughout the school year.  I just used the "magic wand" tool in the embroidery software to instantly assign stitches once the artwork had been imported, and the only downside was that the software can't tell it's working with lettering when you import a scanned signature, so the satin stitches don't automatically slant along the letters the way that they do when you are working with a computer font.  I ended up using different fill stitches for some of the kids' signatures and was able to make it work for the apron project, but if I was going to embroider my own signature on a quilt I would spend the extra time to manually angle the satin stitches for a more professional end result.  Perhaps this is easier to accomplish with the Version 6 software instead of the Version 4 software I was using when I did these aprons four years ago.  I'm looking forward to finding out when I take my software mastery classes in April!

Meanwhile, I have a quilt top that needs to be pressed.  Have a great weekend!